In the Spirit of Collegial Inquiry...

updated: 29 Apr 98

Animal Prodigies and the Human Animal

EM:   Darwin was wrong, of course, though he did do some interesting trips and observations. But the idea that the strongest and smartest (mental strength?) are best at surviving is simply not the case with humans. Every generation of humans seems to have about the same mix of strong, weak, clever and stupid I think what survives is the patterns of characteristics of humans as a group, or collective, organism. Ants, rabbits, sharks, humans , turtles, germs, etc. are collective entities sharing the one characteristic of wishing to have life and reproduce. The collection of collections of life forms is what we call life on Earth, and I doubt if we humans are any more, or less, essential than tuataras and spotted owls.

LDL:   We are the first species that might have to create our own evolutionary advancement, if we are to have one. Darwin and Jaynes** aside, man is still an ape and retains a bicameral mind. I have long felt if the human species, at the highest intellectual end of the spectrum, is the best that we can hope for ... we are in a lot of trouble. That is scarcely smart enough to realize that we don't quite cut it as an "intelligent" species.

Take our belief in magical thinking .... please! {GriN!}

We have a tendency to see design in everything, even in that which has no design. I suppose in some odd way it was once part of our survival mechanism , but how useful is it today? Will we ever be able to approach reality without constructing patterns where there are no patterns? Why do we ask why, and how can we get past it to simply asking HOW? Accepting what is, instead of creating what is not, because of our fear of what is.

Still, we have advanced a little ... some of us. No more ghosts, leprechauns , banshees, olympic gods, viking gods, werewolves, vampires, phoenix birds, and slowly the tales of talking snakes, flying snakes, unicorns, satyrs, cockatrice, and raising the dead, are fading. But they are replaced by zealous believers in telepathy, clairvoyance, fortune tellers, U.F.O.s, transcendental meditation, prayer, hypnosis, lie detectors, and psychologists. Seems we've just exchanged old fairytales for new.

I have "herd" a lot of explanations but none more concise and "simplistic" {GriN!} than my own. We are pack animals, part predator and part cud chewer and we are suggestible, easily influenced, and have an innate need to follow the leader, like a pack of wolves. Sheep follow a leader, but they do little damage save to grass. Wolves follow a leader and they can bring down a caribou. Are we a herd or a pack? I think most people would consider themselves wolves, rather than cattle ... although there is a similarity to each that lends credence to the theory of evolution, in my book. In any event, there are a few leaders and they probably have some idea of what is going on in the world, although in our species the leaders are often found following someone too, and the followers are generally found leading someone , and every pack and "sub-pack" thinks everyone else, other than their own pack, is a bunch of cattle. What makes us a little smarter in our pack, Colloquy, is the realization that we're not that much different than anyone else, right?

And then some darn fool asks me if I think there is intelligent life anywhere "else" in the universe ... hee hee! I laugh and answer, "'Spect not!" and then continue, "Weather shur is a changin' ..."

CW:   We could probably be better defined by what we don't understand than by what we do. For an animal there is no question of what they are. If they consider themselves in the equation at all it is, I think, an accident. For humans it seems nothing is a given as everything is based on learning. In learning the wisdom is in the process and not so much the result which is never complete. It is not that animals don't learn, they do, but it isn't the same deliberate process it is in humans.

For example, just getting the correct answer for a human is sufficient reward. Training animals the correct response needs to be coupled with a more salient reward or the animal won't remember the required behavior. I am not saying that there is no awareness in humans what I am questioning is whether this notion of self that we take for granted has any validity. It seems to largely be determined by factors outside of the individual. We get this notion by having to model different behavioral options before choosing one to act on. This self then, is only limited by our imaginations individually and collectively.

LDL:   There is so much we don't understand, and the world is filled with so many awesome mysteries ...

To say that other animals are not as aware of themselves as humans, I think is correct. Within that limitation, however, I have some interest in the study of animals. Trainers "do" use fish to encourage dolphins and whales to learn tricks, but I understand that they only need be shown a trick once and they retain it. Relative to our complexity humans usually need to be shown a trick four times and we too do better when we are rewarded with treats, be it a pat on the head or a paycheck. Don't say I revealed this secret, it is a secret and magical way of getting your way with other people. Shhhhhhhh!

CW:   I think it is more how they are aware in many ways they are more aware than humans... Dolphins do interesting "art" with air bubbles. I think we are doing them a disservice by imposing what we think is "interesting." I, personally am more interested in the unexpected things that they do as a matter of course.

LDL:   I'm not sure of the level of intelligence of a dolphin ... I remember visiting a pool at SeaWorld after the show. I was alone and the dolphin was alone ... I put my hand in the water and shook it to see if I could get it to come over. It raised its head and with one eye looked squarely into my eyes. There was an awareness there that I have never seen in any other animal save human. It wasn't threatening, it was simply a curious look, a certain degree of recognition.

Cats don't look in your eyes, nor dogs, nor pigs (the brightest of the four footed animals), usually chimps and gorillas don't look in your eyes, and not for long when they do. People look into each others eyes, and yet, here was another species looking into my eyes and holding my gaze unwaveringly. To say I was moved, pleased, mystified, is far too tame a description. I tingled with the experience, hardened old skeptic that I am.

Am I anthropomorphising? Perhaps, or perhaps those who don't see the connection are anti-anthropomorphising, deifying the human. When I was child , psychology claimed animals didn't think. Everything they did was said to be instinctive ... that, at least, has been revised. Maybe this awareness thing will also need revision.

CW:   It is possible that beyond a certain minimum intelligence level is not what defines "human" any more than a specific physical form. I actually don't think you are anthropomorphising at all - in fact quite the opposite.

LDL:   What of Koko, who uses 600 to 800 sign language words to make lucid sentences. When asked, "What are you Koko?" She tapped her chest and signed, "Koko, gorilla, fine animal gorilla." Does she pass the Turing test? Has anyone thought to check?

JPr:   I am not familiar with the "Turing" test.

JCC:   {It's} essentially the model of Alan Turing on computer "intelligence", when in a blind interaction, the human examiner cannot determine whether the conversation partner "at the other end" is another human or a machine simulation of an intelligent being.

Turing himself is such an interesting figure, one who made significant accomplishments for his country only to be hounded to death through military homophobia a few decades back.

JPr:   Thanks for clarifying that! What a shame, too, that people cannot be valued for their merits.

I haven't read much about Koko, but what I have read leads me to understand she was pretty sharp and could respond appropriately to many interactions. I can't remember... maybe you know, Laura, from what you have read... were the humans' interactions with her also generally in ASL or did they simply speak and train her to give back the ASL? (it happens, as silly as it sounds).

CW:   An interesting approach is to ask about her about her past before she learned sign language. I have heard about this being done before but not much.

JPr:   Yes, that would make a good comparison of her communication competence (and thus give some background for her language development) before and after being trained to sign. Someone else (yesterday, I brain is in a vapor lock) mentioned that she could generate new forms to which she had never been exposed. That is proof positive of linguistic competence, albeit at a low level.

LDL:   Last I heard the project had evolved. A massive keyboard was built with pictures and the signs drawn on each key. When Koko punches a button the word is spoken by the computer keyboard. The article said she made the adjustment and understood the concept virtually immediately. The whole thing reminds me a bit of the movie Planet of the Apes. Only it is not an intelligent human in the cage, it is an intelligent gorilla. I have not heard much of it lately. I assume it is keeping a low profile because of the controversy surrounding it. Or perhaps, I hope not, it has been discontinued . It was having difficulty acquiring financial backing. (Strange, the military use of talking gorillas could be enormous. That is where we tend to place our wealth. Being facetious, forgive.)

JPr:   Gee, and I could have sworn the military already had talking gorillas....(not being the *least* bit facetious, of course....)

CLF:   I wonder how well a gorilla spy would stand up under interrogation? Might the use of teams of trained Kokos in jungle battles change the definition of "gorilla warfare"? (Might this be the theme of a new comedy movie, entitled "Hairy Ape, The Spy", instead of "Harriet, the Spy"?)....(more facetiousness)

LDL:   True, there is a controversy over Koko's ability to use language skills. However, it is not one handler who makes the claim, it's all of her handlers . Koko initiates conversation. She is continually surprising her handlers with the ability to communicate her feelings, and it seems thoughts, with novel and unique sentence construction. She puts signs together to express herself in ways she has not been taught. Koko, in free association with young gorillas, attempts to use sign to communicate, and she has even managed to teach a few signs to these other gorillas.

JPr:   Yes, I remember that now. This is true evidence of linguistic competence at some level.

LDL:   And she has lied to her handlers like a petulant child trying to get her way. I don't recall the entire story, something to do with a medicine that tasted good. Apparently she asked for it and when she was refused, she tried to pretend she was sick .

JPr:   I remember this, too...and the kitten story....further proof of linguistic competence ....

LDL:   She also answers conditional questions correctly. Thus if she is feeling good, she says so, and if not, she informs her handlers why she doesn't feel good. She requested a pet and was given an all white kitten without a tail. When asked what she would name it, she invented the name, "All Ball." Some claim she can't understand the concept names. Too abstract a concept for any animal. Yet, when the handlers have the kitten somewhere else she will ask "Where All Ball?" or "When All Ball come back?"

JPr:   What this kind of vocabulary demonstrates, used in context and without prompting, is that some level of complex thought is occurring. The syntax Koko used is characteristic of true American Sign Language (ASL). (It would be incomplete spoken English syntax, but it is appropriate ASL syntax). She could have been trained with that response to "what are you, Koko?" So, the test of her ability to process linguistically would be to give her a question unrelated to any response she had ever seen previously, and see if she could generate a response that was both grammatically correct for ASL and conceptually correct for the question asked.

LDL:   Recall, before I begin, that I am a skeptic and tend to reach for confabulation as an answer to mysteries even when they occur in my own life. But this one is strange ...

I went to the pound with my kids to get them a dog. Met a man with an aging Cocker Spaniel who was waiting outside and who came up to us. He told me his dog was remarkable, that he didn't want to give him up, but he had to because he was living in an apartment where pets were forbidden. Seeing my kids and I coming to get a dog he wondered if we might take Toby. He ran the dog through a series of tricks and told me of many more the dog knew. Naturally we accepted and took Toby home.

Toby could pray, stay, roll over, fetch, catch, jump, go, heel, come, stand, sit, and more. I could tell a friend to go hide a green ball and go hide a red ball and then whisper to me where he hid them. I would then say in a natural voice, "Toby, the red ball is in the bathroom behind the toilet. Would you get it please," and in a flash he would be gone and return with the red ball. "The green ball is hidden under the bed, fetch it." Of course, he would do so or there would be no point in telling this story. The idea of the different colors meant nothing to Toby, of course, that was just so that the guest knew which ball Toby was getting and that it wasn't a mistake . When we went to go for a ride I could say, "Toby, front seat", or "Toby, back seat," or "Toby, third seat," or "Toby, all the way back." (We had one of those monster four layered Dodge station wagons.) He loved to ride and would go where he was directed and wait patiently no matter how long we took.

But the story I am leading up to was so remarkable that you will need to rationalize it ... I know, I did and still do. The family went to the store to pick up some groceries and met a friend there, Lance, by name. We invited him home. When we reached the house Lance grabbed a sack of groceries to take to the house for us. The door was unlocked and he went in. I hadn't thought about Toby until I approached the house and heard Lance say, "What did you say?" It was then I heard a low growly voice clearly say, "Get out of the house." Lance replied, "That's what I thought you said." White as a sheet he turned around and came back out. He looked at me and said, "Your dog just told me to get out of the house, twice. I figured I better do what he says."

Naturally I took Lance back in and introduced him to Toby. Everything was all right after we gave Lance our approval. But Toby never talked again, hardly ever barked, but would growl to let us know when someone was approaching the house, settling down as soon as we showed we were aware. Quite a tale and I haven't the foggiest idea of what to make of it ... other than just one of those serendipitous moments where a growl sounded like the words "Get out of the house." Still, it sent chills down Lance's spine, and mine. One thing for sure, Toby was, as promised, a remarkable dog.

James, my second son is here, and just helped me recall something else peculiar. Lance, we were to eventually discover, while never an active pedophile, had sexual fantasies and leanings which he kept in check. We only discovered this after knowing him as a congenial and friendly person for 17 years. It was the pitiable story of a man with fantasies that were totally abhorrent, even to himself; fantasies he kept restrained. Knowing the man that long and discovering such a secret was a shock. He had always been good and kind to my kids, never stepping out of line. He also seemed genuinely to like having kids around, never touching any of them inappropriately to my knowledge. Still, and strangely, after the incident at the house, Toby tolerated Lance, but never liked him. He was always wary around him. Whenever Lance was visiting, Toby would stay in the same room with him, never letting him alone, and yet never allowing Lance to pet him. Go figure!?

JPr:   I had a student here who has emotional disturbance (deaf) and conduct disorder that is pretty significant. He is now in a residential placement on the mainland. Recently, at another (older) student's Individual Education Program meeting with the parents, the mother described having a younger deaf child come to the home and the dog started to bark at the window before the bell even rang (the dog was upstairs and the door down). This dog reportedly never barked at anyone or anything much, and never did at the son's deaf friends, but the woman asserted that the young deaf boy must have had some evil about him for the dog to bark so much ... I knew who it was without asking, but I asked, and sure enough it was this kid who is on the mainland.

EM:   In the Charles Fort books there are recorded two incidents of dogs speaking intelligbly. In each case, the speech is limited to a phrase, "Good morning" in one case, and I think, "Thank you" in another... I have located a half dozen references to talking animals, it is way too much to type, but I will snail mail if it is of any interest to anyone.

WHK:   Heard an interesting lecture at the Smithsonian, some years ago, about dolphins' intelligence. I specifically asked about inter-species communication, and was told that there are many instances of dolphins and whales "talking", apparently relating mostly to danger or food sources.

** Jaynes, Julian. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1976.

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